Diplomatic flip-flops

Most of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea relate to China’s aggression and posturing. The fight is not just territorial, but economic as well.

Over the last few weeks the stand-off between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, also known as the Huangyan Island, has once again brought international attention to the long-pending territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And now, with the presence and interest of the United States and the fact that over the past few months India, too, has been looking at assisting Vietnamese resource exploration in this region, new players and dimensions have been added to an already agitated dispute.

The latest stand-off between China and the Philippines began around the second week of April when the Philippines Navy war ship prevented Chinese fishermen from fishing in the waters around the Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines claims as part of its maritime territory.
This was followed by joint naval exercises by the US and Philippines naval ships which received some criticism from China although Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) is an annual exercise held around the Palawan Islands. The Chinese position is that the US cannot enter the South China Sea, but the US, which is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), believes that the right to carry out both surveillance and military activities of a peaceful nature is allowed.
In October/November 2011, Indian oil company ONGC signed a deal with Petro Vietnam to carry out exploration of energy resources within its territory of the South China Sea. This led to a war of words between India and China — China objected to India’s presence in this region but India categorically stated that it was not violating China’s sovereign rights by assisting Vietnamese companies in exploration.
For almost a year now China has been hardening its position vis-a-vis the South China Sea, even backtracking on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which it signed with the Asean states in 2002. This must be seen with a view to the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s statement at the Asean Regional Forum Summit in 2010 that the South China Sea was a region of US strategic interest. The fact that this statement received support from several Asean members further pushed the Chinese to assume a hardline position on the matter.
Most of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea relate to Chinese show of aggression and posturing which has not gone down well with countries which also claim parts of the South China Sea — China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines. The fight is not just territorial, but economic as well. One-third of the world’s shipping transits through its waters, and the South China Sea is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed.
The conflicts in the South China Sea emerged around the early 1970s when the countries bordering it began to be more assertive in their nationalistic claims, including maritime boundaries. By the mid-Nineties, China occupied the region around the Mischief Reef despite claims by Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. This brought more stridency to the claims of historical territoriality.
The UNCLOS, an agreement mandated by the United Nations, demarcates the maritime boundaries and sets the limits of a country’s extent at sea. It recognises the distinctions between the internal waters, the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zones (EEZ), the continental shelf, the contiguous zones and the high seas. These demarcations have been ambiguously interpreted by countries that are claimants to parts of South China Sea, leading to confusion over maritime boundaries. For most of the Southeast Asian countries, the disputed region falls beyond 200 nautical miles of their EEZ, but because of the UNCLOS’ interpretation of the continental shelf, which extends the EEZ to 350 nautical miles, many of the coastal and archipelagic states of Southeast Asia claim parts of the South China Sea.
China has a history of 1,000-year-old domination over Southeast Asia and the waters around this region. Their assertion is also based on the fact that the region was discovered when Chinese power was at its height. In fact, Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, announced that the South China Sea was a “core interest”.
Asean has been trying to find a way to address these disputes through its tested methods of adopting the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The TAC, a blueprint for regional conflict redressal mechanism, is based on the principles of the United Nations Charter. In fact, signing the TAC was a condition for entry into the East Asia Summit, which includes all the member states who are in dispute over the South China Sea. The East Asia Summit is a grouping of all the 10 Asean countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, United States and Russia. This is an annual meeting of leaders from the 18 member countries and looks at enhancing both economic and political ties. Interestingly, while the TAC states that the member states should not behave in a manner that threatens other member states, and that conflicts should be addressed through negotiation, it remains ineffective in terms of implementing a resolution.
The Asean’s 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea remains merely rhetorical and has time and again been overlooked by countries in conflict. In fact, in the Asean agreement of July 2011, the claimants agreed to set guidelines for the implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and in a rare case of reconciliation the Chinese side was willing to endorse these guidelines. However, in the latest standoff with the Philippines Navy, the Chinese resumed their hardline position.
The claimants to areas of the South China Sea are clear that a resolution to this dispute lies within the Asean’s norms and systems, whereas China’s posturing in the region belies the story of its peaceful rise in the region. Untangling the overlapping borders in South China Sea is imperative for the overarching security of the Asia-Pacific region.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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